Government distrust leads to fake news and fear

Fake news and fear area heady mix. We saw what happened just before March 27, nary a toilet roll to be had. On Tuesday afternoon, we had the same thing all over again. Queues mysteriously forming outside bottle stores like the secret signal for an impending zombie apocalypse – “the president will speak tonight; he’s going to close the bottle stores…”

Except he wasn’t. By mid-afternoon, government had been moved to issue an official statement that booze wasn’t to be banned – as Uncle Cyril had peremptorily done on July 12, without the grace of a day or two to stock the fridge.

So, who started the rumour? Cynics say the booze manufacturers themselves did, because Tuesday was pay day. It’s a bit of stretch, much like WMC, Area 57 and Donald Trump’s COVID 19 cure. Instead, like all quintessentially South African SNAFUs, it’s probably more a case of bad management rather than malice.

Where communication isn’t unequivocal and on time, the crackpots (and the Machiavellian) will fill the vacuum with their own theories. When that happens in a time of often contradictory messaging with prohibitionist ministers chasing their own windmills, the impossible suddenly becomes terribly possible. And so, there was a run on the bottle stores, because obviously no oner really wants to go back to brewing their own rotgut or drinking exotic white and red teas served by winking waiters.

One of the most remarkable news stories of last weekend wasn’t that police had arrested so many people for drink driving or that tragically three speed cops had perished chasing a drunk driver in Pretoria, but rather that two SAPS cops had been caught for drunk driving. “Caught” is perhaps generous; one of them (a sergeant) drove straight into a JMPD van, while the other drove into an accident scene injuring a bystander.

We haven’t heard much about that from the ministers. Given Police Minister Bheki Cele’s propensity to punish everything from midnight smooches between spouses to a quiet pint on the porch, you might have expected him to summarily ban all SAPS officers from driving forthwith to keep crime off the roads.

But no, not a word. Instead we had handwringing and sturm und drang from Mr Fix-It, the irrepressible, inimitable – and invariably heroically inept – transport minister Fikile Mbalula. By Wednesday, there was talk of a zero-alcohol limit for drivers being promulgated by December. It’s not new, Fearfokkol suggested it himself last November.

It makes for great shock and awe headlines but means as little as say, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s plaintive letter to ANC members proselytising on the evils of graft. The only thing that works is action. Targeted action against the obviously guilty, not punishing the entire class because you are either too incompetent – or too cowardly – to discipline those rubbing your nose in it.

The truth is that many South Africans have stopped trusting the government; whether it’s PPE, open toed-sandals or Woolies chickens. They certainly don’t have high expectations of their leaders and because of that Tuesday afternoon was a case, as journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh put it, of “better suip than sorry”.

Originally published on 29 August 2020 in the Saturday Star